United States

565. The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR is a film I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. The Tramp’s first talking role, it’s an audaciously silly and scathing takedown of Hitler back when the US was loathe to get involved, and a reminder of what art can do in uncertain times.

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Instead of a full review, I’m now going to be super indulgent and simply copy and paste Chaplin’s speech from the end of the film. (more…)

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833. Cat People

Happy Halloween! This year I’m celebrating with a horror classic: Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s famously low-budgeted CAT PEOPLE. It stars the riveting Simone Simon as Irena, a young Serbian woman who believes that if she is intimate with her new husband, she’ll be consumed by an ancient family curse and turned into a murderous panther. The film has been lauded for creating a cheap but effective monster out of shadows, sound, and imagination, and rightfully so. The art direction elevates the film well beyond that of a bargain monster movie, with perfectly utilized sets, clever editing, and gorgeous dramatic lighting that lends just the right spooky atmosphere. And it’s a great setting for Simone Simon’s performance, which strikes a precarious balance between victim and villain. Even without knowing the context of CAT PEOPLE, and how it influenced the horror genre during an era of cheesy creature features, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable film that delivers all the requisite Halloween thrills.

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501. Paris, Texas

Sorry I’ve been slow to update lately! It’s mostly because I’ve been working on my other never-ending side project. Take a look at QueerPortraits.com if you’re interested.

The American West has rarely been as beautifully captured as it is in Wim Wenders’ PARIS, TEXAS. The German director somehow knows exactly how to use the vast, empty landscape of an American desert, along with the vast, empty landscape of an American city, to tell the story of crossing those expanses and filling in that emptiness. The film opens on Harry Dean Stanton wandering the desert, sunburnt, dehydrated, and mute. Slowly it’s revealed that he has a brother, and a son, and somewhere, a wife, and slowly he begins to put those pieces of his life back together. Everything about the film’s pacing is gradual, without feeling stagnant. If there are long silent stretches, they’re generally filled in with excellent acting (no surprise, because Harry Dean Stanton is wonderful always) and striking cinematography. And the themes of family and human connection at the heart of the film are carefully explored. I really enjoyed that the entire thing is pure eye candy to look at, but I think my favorite aspect is the humanity and respect given to each character by Wenders and screenwriter Sam Shepard. I’m a sucker for any story that has a conflict without villains.

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821. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

This illustration originally appeared in Issue D of the excellent film zine Shelf Heroes.

Well, what can I say about this film? It’s one of my absolute all-time favorites, and I’ve watched it more times than I can count. In case there’s anyone who hasn’t seen it, DR. STRANGELOVE is Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War black comedy about nuclear annihilation, starring Peter Sellers in three separate roles. As satire, it’s basically perfect, squeezing every bit of humor out of the fact that our world’s safety rests with a handful of men who are either petty, incompetent, or unbalanced. And as terrifyingly realistic as the chain of events seems to be, it’s also funny as hell, start to finish, even fifty viewings later. I could easily rattle off a list of favorite jokes, or expound on how Kubrick matched his deliberate style to comedy, or explore the broad influence of the film’s iconic imagery. But lately I’ve been giving more thought to the film’s singular plot. Peter Sellers may play a range of parts, yet this is a film with only two characters: the earth, and humanity. And I’d be hard-pressed to name another film that makes me want to root less for humanity. Especially one this goddamn delightful.

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667. Seconds

When I first heard of this movie, sometime last year, I couldn’t believe it. A sci-fi psychological thriller? Starring Rock Hudson? Why did no one tell me this existed? Finally I got my hands on it, and I’m happy to say it met my high expectations and then some. John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS tells the story of a middle-aged banker who is given the opportunity—or rather, gently coerced into the opportunity—of starting all over again. A mysterious company puts him under the knife, and he emerges as Rock Hudson, a painter living in Malibu, free from friends and family and obligation. But what should be a fairytale of course unfolds like a nightmare. The film’s style is consistently sinister and claustrophobic, from Saul Bass’s unnerving opening credits to striking cinematography that makes liberal use of distortion, odd angles, and close-ups. The tale’s biting critique of reinvention in the 60s feels extremely relevant, and not just because MAD MEN has revisited those themes decades later. As for Rock Hudson, he gives a phenomenal performance as a man who can’t quite reconcile who he is with the life he finds himself leading, a roll I can’t help thinking he understood. If only he had been in more films like this one. Hell, if only there were more films like this one.

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544. Head

In 1968, the Monkees set out to make an art film, forgetting that they were not, strictly speaking, artists. The notorious commercial flop that followed was the final nail in the coffin of their careers, flummoxing their fans and ignored by everyone else. But it’s hard to reconcile all that tragedy with the pure joy that is HEAD. The film’s structure is a cyclical series of loosely connected vignettes, ranging from music videos to psychedelic dreams to anti-war satire to stoner sketch comedy. It’s hit-or-miss to be sure, but the overall effect is bizarre and fun. Even while the Monkees try to break away from their television personas, they just can’t help hamming it up for the camera. Those goofy performances may dampen the film’s artistic merit, but they are also what make it watchable 50 years later. And beneath the slapstick, there are some genuinely interesting cinematic experiments, and a still relevant commentary on pop culture and artifice. Basically, this is as entertaining as 60s counterculture filmmaking gets, and I’m so glad it exists despite what a bad idea it was at the time. Keep an eye out for cameos from Frank Zappa, Dennis Hopper, and the film’s coscreenwriter Jack Nicholson.

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118. Sullivan’s Travels

Whenever I sit down to yet another film about filmmaking, I have a hard time not rolling my eyes. Yes, I get it that filmmakers like talking about their immediate surroundings; who doesn’t? But Preston Sturges’ SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS places its scope well beyond Hollywood. Set at the tail end of the Great Depression, it stars Joel McCrea as Sullivan, a director of light comedies who wants to make a serious film about poverty. (He wants to call it, incidentally, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?—maybe that’s old news for you diehard Coen brothers fans, but it was a fun surprise for me.) When it’s pointed out how little he knows about trouble, he decides to hit the road with ten cents in his pocket to find out. He has a few false starts, but succeeds in meeting the glamorous yet plucky Veronica Lake who wants to tag along. Unable to say no to such flawless shiny hair, they set off to experience poverty together, depicted in a loving silent montage. I’ll admit that Pulp’s “Common People” kept playing as the soundtrack in my head, but this is a satire that recognizes the flaws of the well-meaning. The beauty is that making fun of Sullivan’s desire to comment on poverty and the human condition also allows Sturges to do just that. And he does it warmly and movingly and full of humor, especially towards the end, concluding on what may well be his career’s thesis. No wonder that the Coen brothers wanted to pay homage to that.

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681. Frances Ha

FRANCES HA follows an aimless 20-something woman in New York City as she attempts to figure out her life. And if that sounds like a cliché, the execution certainly isn’t. Co-written by director Noah Baumbach and lead actress Greta Gerwig, the film toes a careful line between bleak and lighthearted, balancing a character who makes plenty of mistakes but has her heart in the right place. Enjoyment of the film is going to be pretty dependent on whether the viewer likes Frances or not, but for me, Gerwig has the charm and sincerity to pull it off from the start. And Baumbach’s direction keeps the black and white filming as playful as its subject. A favorite moment has to be Frances embarking on the most disappointing Paris trip in film history. But what stays with me more than anything are the explorations of themes severely lacking in cinema: the idea that creative ambition doesn’t have to end in wild success or miserable failure; and the elevation of friendship to the status usually reserved for romance. More of that, please.

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257. Secret Honor

The description of SECRET HONOR tells you right away that this is the kind of movie that can either triumph or fail. Phillip Baker Hall plays a recently resigned President Richard Nixon, who delivers a 90 minute monologue into a microphone, surrounded by portraits, whiskey, and a gun. And that’s it. With the wrong actor or director, this could have been a pretty painful 90 minutes. But Phillip Baker Hall is incredible, careering between depression, rage, joy, shame, and manic bouts of paranoia that are constantly engaging, even if it’s not exactly clear what he’s talking about. (My very limited knowledge of politics meant that I was furiously Googling everything as he spoke.) Robert Altman’s deft direction doesn’t hurt either, and he makes full use of his single actor and set. Particularly memorable are the row of television screens that sometimes display security footage, but more often are trained on Nixon’s face. It’s fear and ego wrapped up into a nice little visual, just as Nixon’s complexities are wrapped up into this deceptively simple film.

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662. Safety Last!

First of all, a shout out to my dad for buying this one for me. Thanks, Dad!

Harold Lloyd, the other-other silent comedy film star, plays an everyman trying to make it in the big city so he can marry his sweetheart. The first half of the movie pokes fun at his low-wage retail job, his snooty boss, his trusting girlfriend, and other such clichés. But the film doesn’t come alive until the second half, when Harold Lloyd (for reasons that don’t really matter) must scale a building. I don’t think I’ve ever been so anxious during a stunt sequence. I could literally feel my heart pounding as he encounters every obstacle one can fathom meeting on the side of a building, with the distant ground level frequently in frame. The highlight, of course, is the iconic hanging-from-a-clock scene, which has been copied and referenced in countless other films and—I swear I didn’t imagine this—a recent makeup commercial. It’s a memorable image that deserves its legendary status, but it’s the entire nail-biting climb from sidewalk to rooftop that makes SAFETY LAST! such an enjoyable classic.

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